When I began my career in independent-school education 33 years ago at a small boarding school in Santa Barbara County, I could not have imagined a vocation so fulfilling, meaningful, and enjoyable. Though there are too many wonderful aspects of working in schools to mention here, one in particular stands out; it is the opportunity every summer to consider the potential of a new school year, and to think proactively about how we will make positive adjustments to our relationship to the community.
The Gift of Resetting
This sense of starting over applies not only to teachers, but to students and families as well. There are few other areas of our life where we have the opportunity not only to start anew, but also to reflect every year on the successes and challenges of the prior year and set an intention to improve our work, our commitment to the community, and our relationships with one another. There also are few other communities in which our individual and collective approaches matter so much. It is in that spirit of new beginnings and opportunities that I wish to speak to the importance of having an open mind.
Beyond the relatively small confines of our Dawson community, there exists a polarized country where extreme opinions are rewarded, and in which the most provocative influencers are magnified. In such an environment, we tend to cling even more closely to our own views and seek out those people and outlets that share our perspective on life. This polarization and isolation limits discourse, limits socialization, and limits opportunities for new ideation or compromise.
It’s Okay to Question
A couple of years ago, I read a fantastic book that speaks to the current situation, and ways in which we can proceed as an educational community beginning a new school year. The book is by Adam Grant and is called Think Again. Grant explains that we should question ourselves more.
“Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.”
He goes on to summarize,
“This book is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.”
This last line reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago… The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Mason. In it, he identifies vices that many of us hold onto, much to our disadvantage. One of those vices is the desire to always be right. I certainly am guilty of that, and I appreciate the invitation in this book to learn how we can actively open our minds and how we can collectively be a more open-minded and curious community. This does not mean that other people need to see things our way, but that we allow for some middle ground to be found.
The Reward in Being Wrong
The key to this approach, according to Grant, is for us to think more like scientists. This “involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons we might be wrong - not for reasons we must be right - and revising our views based on what we learn.” The ability to do this is part of what he calls the rethinking cycle. This cycle begins with humility. Humility leads to doubt, which is followed by curiosity and then discovery, which keeps us humble. If knowledge is power, then knowing what we don’t know is wisdom. This is in contrast to the overconfidence cycle, which is characterized by pride, conviction, confirmation/desirability bias, and validation.
We live in a society where being right is important, so we look for ways to prove that we are right and for information to verify our position. As we begin another school year, I hope we allow for some extra humility, grace, and open-mindedness to help us all focus on our collective educational purpose and the importance of seeking to see things from multiple perspectives and consider every once in a while that we might not have all of the answers.